November 2, 1997. That's the last (and only) time the United States has played a competitive match at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City and avoided defeat. Despite the fact that every part of the game in this country has improved in the ensuing decade and a half, it remains our best result in what is far and away the toughest venue in a region full of them.
Oh, we've come close. It was 1-0 in 2001, with Jared Borgetti scoring the only goal early in a match where the US created little. In 2005, Borgetti struck again, and in a haze the Yanks let up a second for Sinha. Eddie Lewis managed a second half response, but there wasn't enough left in the tank for the Americans to find a second. We inched even closer in 2009, when Charlie Davies opened the scoring after just 9 minutes. Unfortunately, Israel Castro responded with the goal of his life - masochists, go ahead and watch - to pull Mexico back into it, and Miguel Sabah came up with a winner in the 82nd to break USMNT hearts again.
It's always more or less the same story. Mexico uses their experience and mental strength to take an advantage at a crucial point in the match (see: Borgetti scoring in the first 15 minutes, Sinha right after Mexico had just scored their first, Sabah in the last 10 minutes), and the US is just too tired from chasing the ball and fighting the combination of mid-day heat and toxic, thin air. We rue some bad call or unlikely stroke of luck (see: Castro's goal, which he teed up from somewhere in Michoacán), but ultimately there isn't enough American offense to deserve more than the close loss we got.
All that said, the past can't come and suit up for Mexico tonight. Jurgen Klinsmann's side, in fact, has gone to Azteca and come out on top. Last August's win was the first US victory over El Tri in Mexico ever, in competitive play or otherwise. Sure, it required Tim Howard to stand on his head, and most of the match consisted of the Mexicans attacking in waves while the US hunkered down to do little more than defend, but still: A win's a win. For the most part, Klinsmann's new generation doesn't bear the scars of previous visits. Klinsmann himself has never lost to Mexico as a player or coach, not that friendlies in 1992 mean much of anything.
That thrilling but ultimately meaningless win is hardly the only reason for US fans to have a bit of hope. While the Yanks managed a deserved 1-0 win in
Antarctica Colorado Friday night, Mexico saw a two-goal lead evaporate in the searing afternoon heat in Honduras. The 2-2 draw came on the heels of a shocking 0-0 draw at Azteca against Jamaica, a team El Tri expected to brush aside handily.
The point is that Mexico is under immense pressure at the moment, sitting outside the automatic qualification spots despite having yet to face the United States or Costa Rica, the two teams that give them the toughest time. They've wasted a home game, and then uncharacteristically failed to preserve a (scarcely deserved) lead. Despite having a star-studded attack made of starters in Spain and England, they aren't creating chances; despite the promise of a golden generation of Mexican talent, they aren't dominating games with the traditionally stylish game El Tri fans like to see. There is talk that José Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre could be fired if Mexico loses tonight.
Chepo faces some difficult issues. His defenders were shaky throughout their draw in Honduras; his midfielders let los Catrachos dictate the terms; and his superstar attackers created little aside from the chances they converted. Team captain Francisco "Maza" Rodriguez is suspended, forcing Chepo to make a change at center back. Of course, after Maza had a generally awful game - he was responsible for both Honduran goals, and those weren't his only mistakes - that might serve as a blessing for Mexico.
Going back to his days coaching Deportivo Toluca, Chepo has preferred a 4231. That hasn't changed for Mexico, who are more or less certain to use the formation tonight:
Those following the build-up to this game will be surprised to see Jorge Torres Nilo listed above. It's widely being reported that the Tigres UANL defender's yellow card in Honduras will see him suspended, but Tom Marshall is reporting that Chepo and El Tri have been informed by FIFA that Torres Nilo is eligible to suit up.
That's crucial, because Mexico's squad is otherwise short at left back. Carlos Salcido is a natural in the role, but Chepo prefers him in defensive midfield. If Salcido had been shifted back, Chepo would have had to choose between the aging and temperamental Gerardo Torrado of Cruz Azul or the less experienced but perhaps more skilled Hector Herrera of Pachuca.
Maza Rodriguez will likely be replaced by Hugo Ayala. The Tigres center back is not exactly vastly experienced, but he's still well ahead of 20 year old Diego Reyes (Club América) in that department. Jonny Magallón is also an option, but the CSD León man has only just been recalled after years in the wilderness for El Tri. If it turns out that Torres Nilo is suspended - this is CONCACAF, so anything can happen - Magallón is also an option at left back, though he'd be a very conservative choice for Chepo to make for a home game.
Assuming Torres Nilo plays and Salcido stays in the midfield, the rest of the team is straightforward. To the right of Salcido will be the steady presence of CF Monterrey defensive midfielder Jesús Zavala. Ahead of them are a trio of skillful, shifty dribblers who all play for Spanish clubs: Javier Aquino (Villarreal), Giovani Dos Santos (living the high life at RCD Mallorca), and the outstanding Andrés Guardado (Valencia). Ahead of them is Javier "Chicharito" Hernández, who plays for some modest English club named Manchester United. Both Chicharito and Dos Santos limped off against Honduras, but the issue was cramping calves rather than a real injury; both are fit and ready for tonight's game.
Defending Mexico is always a difficult task. The main danger is Chicharito, who overcomes his slight build by being fast, elusive, and a prodigious leaping ability. Chicharito's ability to anticipate where the ball will go before it's even been served into the box is the key to his goalscoring ability, and the only way you can stop such a sharp player is to be one step ahead of him. It was typical of Chicharito to see him score Mexico's first in Honduras by winning a header against the far more powerful Victor Bernardez. Rather than physically beat Bernardez - which would be a David vs. Goliath sort of battle - Hernandez simply thought faster than the San Jose Earthquakes center back, arriving first to a clipped cross from Guardado.
To prevent service for Chicharito, the US must reduce the number of times the Mexican attacking midfield trio can isolate people on the dribble. The aforementioned Guardado cross came after Honduras passed on a chance to double-team the Valencia winger, and within moments the ball was in the back of the net. It's unlikely that the US will prevent all attempts to isolate, so it's also vital that Klinsmann's defenders are ready to poke the ball away and/or take good angles to prevent the intended cross, pass, or shot.
Of the trio in the midfield, Guardado is by far the most dangerous. He has top-notch speed and loves to challenge right backs whenever possible. He's not the kind of player who makes a complicated move, or beats you and then keeps the ball for too long. Guardado is a "feint-and-go" kind of guy, and he can be devastating. On the other flank, Aquino has the more showy moves, but lacks Guardado's out-and-out pace. Instead, Aquino likes to cut inside and look to combine.
In the middle is Dos Santos, a skillful but enigmatic sort of player. When he's on his game, "Gio" can border on unstoppable. He has tremendous ability, thinks very quickly, and is a sharp finisher. However, on more than one occasion Dos Santos has essentially hidden from the game when the going gets tough. It happened in Honduras, thanks to a combination of the scorching heat and the physical nature of guys like Bernardez and Roger Espinoza (who at one point decked Dos Santos with a bodycheck most hockey players would be proud of). Allowing Gio to feel comfortable would border on suicidal for the US, so emulating the Honduran plan to make this a hellish 90 minutes is a must.
In possession, Mexico can be a little slow due to the partnership of Zavala and Salcido. Both are fine players, but neither does much to join the attack. Most double-pivots have one player that is more attack-minded than the other, but in this case both tend to stay home whenever possible. When an extra man jumps into the attack, it's far more likely to be Torres Nilo or even right back Severo Meza - also a rather cautious player - than either of the men in the engine room.
Speaking of how that pairing works, it's important to note how tactically rigid Mexico can be under Chepo. Zavala and Salcido basically split the field in half, with Zavala playing right-center midfield and Salcido playing left-center. They virtually never swap lateral roles, and that lack of flexibility may result in some gaps to pass through for the US. Further, Salcido is always the player who checks back to receive the ball from the back four. If the USMNT picks up on this and can block that link, it will force Mexico to come up with a new plan (something that Honduras didn't really bother with, as they preferred to cut Salcido off from the front four instead). If Mexico ends up playing long balls, we should be able to keep them from settling into the rhythm they crave.
In the attack, the US should have options. Honduras managed to create plenty attacking either side of Maza Rodriguez, who seemed a step slow defending in the middle while struggling to coordinate his positioning with Meza when the attack was focused on the channel between them. Rodriguez won't be in, but one must assume that similar uncertainties will crop up in an unfamiliar back four that will be without their veteran leader. Meza, for one, is a steady player with few weaknesses but also few remarkable strengths; if his positioning is as shoddy as it was in Honduras, the American attack should play the ball down the left on a regular basis.
On the left, Torres Nilo can be caught out when he joins the attack. The Yanks can take advantage of this by plagiarizing another Honduran tactic: Quick, direct transition into the attack. Honduras was willing and able to immediately push the ball forward after winning turnovers, and their mid-range passing usually was good enough to at least force the El Tri defense to face their own goal and win a footrace. Mexico was uncomfortable with this throughout, and the US attack has more speed than Honduras did with Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly.
Set pieces should also be a big US advantage. Mexico's marking on set pieces is suspect, with Maza Rodriguez's utter failure to mark Costly that let Honduras pull their first goal back just the latest example. Maza usually draws the #1 assignment on set pieces, too, underlining this weakness. Ayala and Moreno are no slouches, but they're generously listed at 6' and 6'1" respectively; if they're up against Omar Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron, or Jozy Altidore, they'll be at a distinct disadvantage. Zavala is the tallest Mexican player, but is very thin and will struggle to stay close to our biggest players during the mosh pit that is the modern corner kick.
In goal, Guillermo "Memo" Ochoa has apparently edged out former #1 José de Jesús Corona, at least in part due to his being vice-captain of the squad. Frankly, to me it's a little odd that this is seen as a big decision; for my money, Ochoa is comfortably better. That said, Ochoa is a bit vulnerable on crosses due to his relative lack of physical strength and his short (for a keeper) stature. If the US can lure Memo off his line and into traffic, he will be very prone to either dropping a cross or scuffing an attempted punch.
On the other hand, Ochoa is an accomplished shot-stopper with good reflexes and coordination, so don't be too surprised if he manages to tip what looks like a sure goal around the post or over the bar at some point. He's no Brad Guzan - he's not even a Nick Rimando, if we're being completely honest - but that still leaves room for Ochoa to be considered a strong keeper.
Psychologically, the US also has an advantage. All the pressure is on Mexico, as was mentioned before. The Azteca crowd has already turned on the home side once, jeering them off in the tie with Jamaica; if the US can stay even or take a lead into halftime, this should happen again.
Further, there are several suspect temperaments in the Mexico squad. Guardado and Chicharito both lashed out at Honduran players on Friday, and in CONCACAF you can never be sure when a referee will turn a minor shoving match or some verbal exchanges into the beginning of a red card bonanza. If Torrado gets on the field, he can generally be counted on to fuel his play with rage, while second-choice winger Angel Reyna is generally not known for being a cordial, sporting sort of opponent either.
We touched on how Dos Santos can shy away from games, but he's not the only one. Aquino and Meza have also played too much within themselves at times in big matches, causing them to make poor decisions on the ball (Aquino) or be too cautious (Meza). If the crowd begins to get upset, these are the players that will fail to rise to the challenge.
Ultimately, a US win is going to require an outstanding display of intelligence, composure, and will. Mexico may be weaker than normal right now, and they're under extraordinary pressure, but they're still really really good and they're still playing at the most unpleasant venue the USMNT is likely to ever have to play a real game in. All over the field, our players are going to have to think faster than El Tri, because their quickness and skill are how they win games. This may be the best chance the US has ever had at winning at Azteca, but it's also a huge opportunity for Mexico to prove to the public and to themselves that they're still the top dog in CONCACAF.